Alleged Bus Driver Boycott Snarls 900 Detroit Jews’ Trek to DC Israel Rally

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Makeshift buses, including a rented limousine, arrive to replace the ones hired by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, in this picture taken from a plane chartered by the federation to the March for Israel, Nov. 14, 2023. (Courtesy of Jennie Levy via JTA.org)

Four hours after Tuesday’s historic pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C. ended, Jennie Levy had expected to be touching down back in Detroit, after a long but fulfilling day standing shoulder to shoulder with Jews from around the country in support of Israel.

Instead, her delegation of 900, organized by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, was hungry, disappointed and nowhere close to home. Many members had missed most if not all of the rally because of what the federation said was a “malicious walk-off of drivers” hired to ferry them between the airport and National Mall. Now, their return flight was delayed as a result, too.

“The buses that were hired to take over 900 participants from Dulles International Airport to the site of the march failed to appear, delaying the arrival of many in our group,” read a statement from the Detroit federation that was circulated by the Jewish Federations of North America. “We have learned that this was caused by a deliberate and malicious walk-off of drivers.”

The incident was a rare blemish on an otherwise successful day for the march and its attendees. Organizers estimate 290,000 people turned out, making the march one of the biggest Jewish gatherings in U.S. history, and people successfully made the trip from all over the country.

The snafu stood out so notably that it was mentioned during the rally itself, called in part to counter the anti-Israel demonstrations that have taken place in many places since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel and elicited a military response. William Daroff, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and one of the organizers of the event, said on stage that “antisemitic bus drivers refused to drive participants to the rally.” Daroff added that the federation told him the bus company had promised to take action against the drivers.

Levy, who works at a hospital and whose husband is Israeli, woke up at 6 a.m. Tuesday for a flight chartered by the Detroit federation. She traveled with a friend for the rally because she thought it was important for the Detroit Jewish community to “be there in full force,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The three planes chartered by the federation landed at Dulles International Airport at around 11 a.m., leaving plenty of time for the delegation to board buses and make the 26-mile drive to the National Mall by the rally’s start time of 1 p.m.

But around a third of the buses never showed.

Mark Miller, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, told JTA that “all that we knew at the time was something about the buses,” possibly a security issue.

Two hours went by, with the three planes stranded on the Dulles tarmac. Because the flights were privately chartered and the passengers did not pass through a TSA checkpoint before boarding, they were not permitted inside the airport.

Then the news started to trickle out from federation staff, who told the people on board that drivers from the bus company the federation had hired were staging a sickout, where workers call out sick as a form of protest — or as Levy put it, they “refused to drive Jews to the rally.” Miller said he thought it was just a rumor at first, but then the federation confirmed it with its statement.

The statement said the federation was “deeply dismayed by this disgraceful action” but noted that not all Detroit attendees were affected. “Fortunately, many were able to travel to the march and we are grateful to the drivers of those buses that arrived,” it said.

Dennis Bernard, a former head of the Detroit federation and the chair of JFNA’s security and antisemitism committee, was aboard one of the planes and read the statement aloud to the other passengers. In a video shared with JTA, Bernard, speaking into the plane’s public address system, said “unfortunately this falls right in my lap,” before presenting the statement as “official talking points.” The video cuts off before Bernard shares additional information that he had said was confidential.

David Kurzmann, the senior director of community affairs at the Detroit federation, told reporters at a late-night press conference that the private bus company, whose name he said he did not know, informed them that some of the drivers called in sick once they became aware of the assignment.

Kurzmann said he considered the incident to be “an act targeting the Jewish community” that prevented people from exercising their right to protest but, when pressed by a reporter, stopped short of calling it antisemitic.

Levy said the mood on the planes on the way to Washington had been one of excitement and pride, with passengers singing the Israeli national anthem and “Am Yisrael Chai” and chanting the Jewish travelers’ prayer. But once things were delayed, the vibe shifted as organizers were noticeably stressed and scrambling to devise a backup plan, Levy said.

After around two hours, the delegation’s organizers had arranged for makeshift shuttles, which allowed many of the 900 people to make it to the rally, though one full plane’s worth of people didn’t get to the event at all.

Miller said he arrived at the rally around 2:30 p.m., and Levy said she got there at 3 p.m. That was when the event was scheduled to end, though it ran until closer to 4 p.m.

Then because of the unexpected delay in the morning, Levy said the plane’s crew had “timed out,” or exceeded federally mandated work limits, and was not allowed to begin the route back to Detroit until 2:30 a.m. — leaving the delegation waiting for several hours outside the airport. Some in the group hadn’t eaten all day, Levy said on Tuesday evening.

Miller said the incident was not only an inconvenience for rally-goers from his area but possibly “an indication of a much larger problem, which could lead to worse consequences,” including violence.

“We can’t pretend it’s not real, this antisemitism,” Miller said. He added, “On a day like today, where we had a large and enthusiastic group who was proud to be there … for this to be the reason we couldn’t get there just speaks to the reality of what is happening all around us, that antisemitism is real.”

Miller said that while the main focus of the day should still be the rally and its enormous turnout, “we would be remiss not to have this [incident with the buses] as part of the story of today, too.”

For Levy, the incident offered a stark reminder of why she had decided to travel to Washington in the first place.

“The Jewish community in the United States already feels very helpless and sad about everything going on,” Levy told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I’m scared too, to know that antisemitism is so close to me.”

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